Thomas Herrion: 1981-2005

It was early last week when the 49ers were gathered as a whole, waiting to be addressed by Hall of Famer Steve Young, who already was tardy for his own speech. The team had a few minutes to burn, so players and coaches cajoled rookie QB Alex Smith to sing his fight song from the University of Utah. As soon as Smith stood up to begin, Thomas Herrion – Utah's team captain as a senior in 2003 – jumped up and began singing with him. That's a glimpse of the kind of man Herrion, dead at age 23, was.

"Everybody began to hoot and holler," coach Mike Nolan said late Sunday afternoon as the team and organization still was absorbing the numbing shock of Herrion's passing. "At that time, (Herrion) came out of his shell. It was warming to see him like that. When you see a player like that, you go, ‘Oh, that's who that player is.'"

The Niners have a lot of warm memories of Herrion, who was becoming a well-liked member of the 49ers family even though he just joined the team last year as a practice-squad player.

But on Sunday, there were mostly questions regarding how a young man in his athletic prime could be cut down so suddenly by tragedy.

Herrion collapsed in the San Francisco locker room Saturday night after the 49ers lost 26-21 to the Denver Broncos in a preseason game at Invesco Field in Denver. He was attended to immediately by team medical staff and paramedics before being taken by ambulance to St. Anthony's Central Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:18 MDT, about an hour after the game ended.

Preliminary results of an autopsy Sunday in Denver were inconclusive. More detailed examinations and toxicology tests are planned on the 330-pound lineman, and it could take several weeks before doctors are able to determine a cause of death.

Nolan said Sunday that Herrion's weight had never been an issue and he did not have any medical issues that the team was aware of.

The 49ers will alter their practice schedule this week and a local memorial service for the team will be conducted Tuesday, Nolan said. Monday was scheduled to be the final two-a-day practice session of training camp, which ends Wednesday, but the team will now practice only once in the late afternoon. The 49ers are scheduled to play their third exhibition game Friday evening against the Tennessee Titans at San Francisco's Monster Park.

"Football will take the back burner, certainly for (Monday)," Nolan said. "I do think that being on the field is therapeutic to coaches and players alike, but not right away. We have some issues to talk about so that everybody can come to some understanding in their minds of what happened. Right now, we're exploring all the ways that we want to deal with our coaches and players alike. It's not just players or coaches, it's everyone in the building."

Nolan, making a brief statement during a brief news conference, said Sunday was "a day of mourning for the 49ers family. We lost a teammate and a very good friend as well."

Herrion participated in "around 20 plays," Nolan said, near the end of Saturday's game, including San Francisco's 14-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in the game's final minutes. That drive began with 2:28 remaining in the game and actually took 16 plays, two of which were called back due to penalties. The drive ended on quarterback Cody Pickett's 23-yard touchdown run with two seconds left.

Herrion chatted with friends after the game and appeared fine as he left the field, according to several reports and television footage.

Nolan said he delivered a post-game speech to the team a few minutes after everybody had filed into the San Francisco locker room.

"I delivered a message, as you typically do following a game, and then we had the Lord's prayer," Nolan said. "We all took a knee and began to say the Lord's prayer. Right about the time of completion, someone in the back had said that Thomas was down. At that time, everyone kind of stood up and cleared out. The medical staff immediately came to Thomas, who at that time was lying on the ground, (and) was quickly at work on Thomas. That's the way things transpired at the time."

Born and raised in Forth Worth, Texas, Herrion was not recruited by major college programs out of Polytechnic High School. But he developed into a prospect at Kilgore Junior College in Texas, where he earned Junior College All-American honorable mention recognition and the nickname, "Train," for his ability to run over opponents. As a sophomore, Herrion played a key role in Kilgore's No. 2 national ranking and undefeated 12-0 record.

Herrion then transferred to Utah, where he started at right tackle as a junior and earned more affectionate nicknames such as "Big T," and "The Meal Ticket."

As a senior, he moved to left guard and started every game there for the Utes, earning team captain honors while being selected to the 2003 Utah Football Leadership Committee.

Herrion wasn't selected in the 2004 NFL draft, but he made it to the final cut last summer as a rookie free agent with the Dallas Cowboys, then spent two weeks on the team's practice squad before being released again.

He was given a workout by the 49ers on October 2, and was promptly signed two days later to the team's practice squad, where he remained the final 12 games of the season.

Herrion was re-signed by San Francisco on January 3 and spent the 2005 NFL Europe season playing for the Hamburg Sea Devils, where he started all 10 games along the offensive line and was one of the team's offensive standouts. He earned another affectionate nickname there, "Thunder," a reference to the size of his head and the noise he made while competing.

Herrion, who was running third on the 49ers' depth chart at left guard behind Justin Smiley and Scott Peters, is the first NFL player to die due to football-related circumstances since Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died after a heatstroke in 2001.

Two other NFL players have died amid football-related circumstances: St. Louis Cardinals tight end J.V. Cain, who suffered a fatal heart attack during training camp in 1979, and Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes, who died of a heart attack during a 1971 game against Chicago.

Herrion is survived by his mother, two sisters and two brothers.

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